Dave Guard of the Kingston Trio had one, Alex Hassilev of the Limelighters had one. And if you were a banjo-crazed folkie riding the wave of enthusiasm for traditional American music that swept across the United States during the late 1950s and early 1960s, you probably wanted one.
What Guard and Hassilev had, and what many others wanted, were long-necked Vega banjos -- specifically, the instrument known as the Pete Seeger-model, or PS5, today one of the most enduring icons of the musical tastes of that generation.
The reason for that long neck? Simple. With the usual five frets between the peghead and the fifth-string peg, most banjos were tuned to an open G Major chord. The addition of enough neck and fretboard between the peghead and fifth-string peg to carry an additional three frets meant that the instrument now could be tuned to an open E Major chord.
E Major, Schmee Major, who cares?
Pete Seeger, the folk music stalwart credited with originating the longneck banjo, cared.
A lapsed Harvard student with an interest in music and social justice, Pete discovered music, and, more important, discovered the banjo as a means for accompanying the songs he wanted to sing about the things that were important to him.
One of those songs was, "Viva la Quince Brigada," which Pete describes as, "One of the great songs of the Spanish Civil War."
The banjo tunings and chord positions available with a banjo neck of traditional length were insufficient for the way he wanted to sing that song, Pete told me.
He said, "C Minor was too high for me, E minor too low, and if I'd slacked off tension on the strings, the strings would have buzzed. G tuning would not have worked for that song.
"So in 1943, on furlough in the U.S. Army, I got (famed New York luthier) John D'Angelico to add two frets to my banjo, a Vega Whyte Laydie, just so I could play and sing Viva la Quince Brigada. Now, G-flat and even F (played as open chords) became possible.
This all worked so well that in 1955, Pete made his own banjo neck, now three frets longer than standard, of lignum vitae, a wood that is, he says, very heavy. He mounted that neck on what he says is, "a Vega pot model A Pete Seeger #100050, the hollow tone rim with eigth-inch holes every three-quarter- inch," a description that sounds very like that of a Tubaphone tone ring.
Pete told me, "Nowadays, my banjo is three frets longer (than normal), and one guy I know has a banjo four frets longer. It's like adding some lower notes to the piano keyboard. You don't use 'em often, but it's nice to have 'em. Normally my capo is three frets up, concert pitch."
The folks at Vega, the fine old instrument manufacturer based in Boston, knew a good idea when they saw one, and began building Pete Seeger-model longneck Vegas. By now, Pete had been on the road, and in record stores, with the Weavers, a quartet credited by many as the vanguard of the '60s folk movement. Pete and his longneck represented a certain folk image, so a Pete Seeger-model Vega longneck is what Guard, Hassilev, and a generation of folk banjoists dedicated to moving forward with the folk torch, played.
How like Pete's own banjo was the Vega product? Hard to tell.
Though Vega's PS5* certainly uses the Tubaphone tone ring, famed for its warm, round tone, the similarity of Vega's longneck to Pete's own neck is harder to track.
When Vega began building its Pete Seeger model, Pete says, "I gave them the dimensions of my neck, but I don't know if they followed them. Most people like a narrower neck than I do."
Today, Pete still plays the neck he built on its old Vega pot. He says that during the short time that C.F. Martin owned Vega, the folks at Martin gave him a Pete Seeger-model banjo.
"I gave it away," he says, and adds, “Now, except for a gourd banjo and a Frank Profitt banjo (in the Cleveland Rock and Roll Museum), neither of which I play much, I have one banjo. I don’t collect.”
* Vega (defunct since about 1970) also built a less expensive, and today much less desirable, longneck model called, I think, the Folk Ranger that used a plain five-ply wood pot with no tone ring.
Thanks to Jon F. Thompson, Calfiles@AOL.com for this article